The “Black Panther” Serge Nubret was a bodybuilding iconoclast. Presented in the critically successful docudrama Pumping Iron as an unexpected entrant into the 1975 Mr. Olympia contest, Nubret was, in fact, a well-known and respected competitor at the time who was an instant threat at any show he entered.
But despite possessing a physique that many believed deserved an Olympia title, Nubret was denied the opportunity to compete in the IFBB following a series of disputes with league owners Ben and Joe Weider in 1975. Instead, he joined Sergio Oliva in a renegade bodybuilding federation. While successes continued, it wasn’t in the way many envisioned.
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What made Nubret so special? His training system was unique, based on instinct, fast tempos, and high reps. His diet was similarly a distinct affair, with the bodybuilder sometimes eating more than five pounds of meat per day in the lead-up to a show.
He appeared in films throughout Europe, played a huge role behind the scenes in bodybuilding, and, most importantly, had a physique that seemed otherworldly. Find out more about Nubret’s life story, his diet, and his training programs.
From Guadeloupe to Bodybuilding
Serge Nubret was born in Anse Bertrand, Guadeloupe, a French colony at the time, in 1938. He spent 12 years there before moving to Paris, according to fitness writer Alan Runarces. He returned to Guadeloupe in 1958 in order to escape the draft for the Algerian War. By that point, he had dedicated himself entirely to bodybuilding.
Indeed, his later book I Am…Me and God noted that bodybuilding became his reason for being. From this point on to his death in 2011, Nubret was always clear that he found spiritual meaning in his weight training.
In 1958, Nubret won the Mr. Guadeloupe show, the first of his many bodybuilding titles. By 1960, he cracked into the sport’s mainstream with a win at the “World’s Most Muscular Man” competition hosted by the IFBB. One year later, he graced the cover of Muscle Builder magazine, further cementing himself as a top name.
Although Nubret continued to appear on magazine covers during the 1960s, his competitive career was rather lackluster as he focused more on film roles than bodybuilding. This is not to say that he didn’t compete at all, but rather that from 1960 to 1970, he competed in just five shows, down from the 12 he later appeared in from 1970 to 1980, according to Muscle Memory.
In 1970, however, he fully returned to the sport and was even voted as IFBB Vice-President for Europe. As bodybuilding historian Randy Roach detailed in his book Muscle, Smoke & Mirrors, Nubret was influential in helping the IFBB spread across the world, particularly by getting shows booked in France and South Africa.
From 1970 to 1975, Nubret had a series of impressive finishes, including taking first at a Mr. Europe show and four podium appearances at the Mr. Olympia. The 1975 Olympia would, however, be his most infamous finish.
In Nubret’s own retelling of this controversial event, he appeared in South Africa for the Olympia 12 days before the show in incredible condition. Indeed, some commentators openly questioned if reigning Olympia champion Arnold Schwarzenegger could beat him.
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Nubret said he was then rocked by the news that he had been disqualified from competition for supposedly starring in a pornographic film, which he was told “did not represent bodybuilding in a respectable manner.”
Though Nubret denied the claim, IFBB President Ben Weider refused to let him compete for fear it would damage the show’s reputation. Eventually, a last-minute agreement was reached that allowed Nubret to compete — but the damage had been done.
As Nubret later revealed in an interview:
“I was so disappointed, I stopped training and eating for 12 days and lost 12 pounds. When my drop in weight and spirit was noticeable to everyone, I was allowed in the last minute to compete on the day of the contest. That’s why I was not in my best condition the day of the contest.”
Nubret ended up finishing second in the Over 200 Pounds class, one spot ahead of Lou Ferrigno but behind winner Schwarzenegger. Despite being an IFBB Vice President, with dreams of potentially becoming the President one day, Nubret cut ties with the IFBB.
The following year, Nubret joined fellow legend Sergio Olivia at Dan Lurie’s World Bodybuilding Guild Federation (WBBG), where the duo competed for the next several years. Nubret also founded the World Amateur Bodybuilding Association (WABBA) and competed in National Amateur Body-Builders’ Association (NABBA) competitions, where he won the Mr. Universe in 1976. He retired from active bodybuilding in 1983 but continued to train himself and others well into the 2000s.
The below footage of Nubret from 2008, aged 70 and still in the gym, highlights his commitment to fitness.
When Nubret passed away in 2011, fellow Golden Era bodybuilder Ric Drasin summed up his legacy as follows:
“He looked like a highly polished statue. Every ripple in his muscles reflected light, and you could see them twitch under his skin with every movement, much like a racehorse. He was quite a sight to see, even for a fellow bodybuilder.”
Serge Nubret’s Training Style and Workouts
Like others from his generation, Nubret was committed to building as full a physique as possible. Training often centered around instinctual workouts with little rest in between sets and an overload of volume. Even among his peers, his light-to-moderate weights and high-volume system was unique.
This “pump training” system was defined by Nubret himself as training with 30/40/50 sets per body part (16 sets for arms) twice a week. This included sets of 12-20 reps with 30 seconds of rest in between.
[Related: Who Is the Strongest Mr. Olympia Winner?]
In 2012, fitness writer and coach Bradley Joe Kelly revisited Nubret’s pump training after the bodybuilder’s death and gave some interesting sample workouts. Here’s the workout for quads and chest, which Nubret sometimes did on the same day:
- Squat: 8 x 12
- Leg Press: 8 x 12
- Leg Extension: 6 x 12
- Barbell Bench Press: 8 x 12
- Flat Dumbbell Flye: 6 x 12
- Incline Bench Press: 8 x 12
- Incline Dumbbell Flye: 6 x 12
- Dumbbell Pullover: 6 x 12
The focus here was on moving the weight through a full range of motion with little rest between sets. This constant focus on the muscle was key to Nubret’s pumped-up physique.
His six-day-a-week program was divided into three workouts, done twice a week.
Serge Nubret’s Diet
Pump training wasn’t the only thing that made Nubret different. In a later interview with Matt Weik of Bodybuilding.com, Nubret stressed the pure volume of food that he ate:
“A lot of red meat, rice and beans. Sometimes 6 lbs. of red meat a day when training for competition. I also eat chicken, fish, steak, lentils, rice, vegetables and fruits.”
One of Nubret’s more notable sources of protein was, interestingly enough, horse meat, which he would eat pounds of during prep. (It should be noted that while horse meat isn’t typically eaten in the United States, it’s more common around the globe, including in countries like China, Switzerland, Germany, and Mexico.)
For those worrying about consuming too much protein, Nubret was unequivocal in his belief that excess protein would be converted into energy in the body. During his competitive career, he often claimed to eat only when hungry so his meals wavered between one and three meals a day. Much like his training, high volume is the best way to describe his diet.
Serge Nubret’s Bodybuilding Contest History
Here are some of the most notable contest finishes from Nubret’s bodybuilding career, courtesy of Muscle Memory:
- NABBA Universe, Tall — 2nd
- NABBA Universe, Tall — 2nd
- NABBA Universe, Tall — 3rd
- IFBB Mr. World, Tall — 2nd
- IFBB Mr. Europe, Tall — 1st
- Mr. Olympia — 3rd
- Mr. Olympia — 2nd
- Mr. Olympia, Heavyweight — 3rd
- Mr. Olympia, Heavyweight — 2nd
- WBBG Olympus — 2nd
- NABBA Universe — 1st
- WBBG Olympus — 1st
- NABBA Universe — 2nd
- WBBG Mr. World — 1st
- NABBA Universe — 2nd
- WABBA Pro World Cup — 2nd
- WABBA World Championships — 1st
Learning from Nubret
Nubret once described bodybuilding as “mind, body, and spirit together in union.” From the beginning, “The Black Panther” connected much loftier goals to his training than simply getting big. It was a way of life for him.
Equally important was Nubret’s decision to experiment with different training methods to decide which best suited his body. Nubret’s high-volume, high-tempo training methods were suited to his body, and, as he himself stressed on multiple occasions, he gave maximum effort and focus to his regimen. His willingness to find what worked for him helped build a legendary physique.
Finally, Nubret’s life is a testament to the fact that not all bodybuilding legends are necessarily Olympia winners. Images of his physique still adorn gym walls and serve as inspiration for a new generation. That, itself, is a fine legacy.
Featured image: @Serge_Nubret on Instagram